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International donors – aiding or abetting?

10 September 2015

Image: Niels Sienaert, Flickr.

In September 2012, lawyers representing an Ethiopian farmer announced that they planned to sue the UK government for its role in human rights violations in Ethiopia. The farmer, named in court papers as “Mr O”, alleged that the Ethiopian government’s “villagisation” programme had involved the forced resettlement of thousands of families including his own.

Mr O claimed to have witnessed beatings and rape. He says that when he tried to return to his own village in 2012, Ethiopian soldiers caught him and tortured him. His lawyers argue that the UK government must share some of the responsibility for these abuses because the villagisation programme was funded by its Department for International Development.

Criticism from a number of organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and the Oakland Institute, has fuelled accusations of donor complicity in the violations in Ethiopia – yet many see the country as a development success story. Thirty years on from the famine that claimed over a million lives, Ethiopia’s transformation has been described as an “economic miracle”.

This demonstrates well the dilemma donors face when giving aid to non-democratic developmental regimes. The commitment of the Ethiopian and other ‘developmental’ yet repressive governments to promoting socio-economic development has led to significant progress. Donors who help such regimes may be complicit in those abuses, yet withdrawing aid may threaten such countries’ socio-economic progress. How, then, should donors decide what to do?

The shift towards politics in development research and policy in recent years, often referred to as “thinking and working politically” (TWP), has highlighted the trade-off that often has to be made between promoting economic development and strengthening political and human rights. Acceptance of this trade-off, the emphasis on political realism, and the importance given to the role of domestic leadership all mean that proponents of TWP tend to take a favourable view of developmental regimes, even if they exhibit authoritarian characteristics.

The clearest example of this is South Korea. The country’s economic transformation took place under an authoritarian regime, and it was only after a minimum threshold of development was achieved that the country democratised. While South Korea is widely viewed as the foremost development success story, current President Park Geun-hye went so far as to apologise during her 2012 election campaign for the substantial human rights violations of the earlier authoritarian developmental regime.

Even so, some proponents of TWP criticise the donor emphasis on democratic governance, saying that “what poor developing countries really need are leaders who … can get things done”. However, there are also plenty of examples to show why this ‘working with the grain’ approach can be problematic.

Peter Uvin’s superb book, Aiding Violence, explains how the donor community saw the Rwandan government of the 1980s and early 1990s as developmental and so continued to provide it with aid, though warning signs such as escalating racist propaganda hinted at the possibility of looming problems. Uvin describes how this aid helped the Hutu government to acquire the weapons used in the genocide of 1994.

As Duncan Green notes, a real danger with some of the approaches to TWP and ‘doing development differently’ is that “we end up helping governments that routinely kill or suppress their opponents [to] ‘deliver development’”.

We argue in our new paper that it is important to acknowledge the dilemma donors face when giving aid to developmental states. We have developed a framework that shows how the “donor’s dilemma” is, in fact, three distinct dilemmas of complicity, double effect, and dirty hands.

In complicity dilemmas, an agent sets out to achieve a desired outcome but others do wrong while progress towards that outcome is underway. To avoid complicity, the agent would have to withdraw and sacrifice the positive effect of her intended actions.

The name we have given to the second type of dilemma borrows from the ethical Doctrine of Double Effect which says that sometimes it may be permissible to cause harm as a side effect – but not as a means – of bringing about a good result. We suggest that a political reading of double effect dilemmas would interpret them as cases in which the structural realities that constrain the agent create a situation in which actions towards desired effects will inevitably generate negative side effects.

In dirty hands dilemmas, the agent acts in a way that would generate a negative effect as a means – perhaps the only means – to achieve the desired positive effect. Understood politically, dirty hands dilemmas arise where different goals – for instance, stability, fairness, justice – are in tension with each other, and some have to be sacrificed, compromised or negated to maintain others.

Our framework suggests how to diagnose each type and practical ways in which they can be addressed. An all-or-nothing approach to the donor’s dilemma offers only two choices; either fully endorsing financial support to a developmental regime regardless of how it behaves, or withdrawing all aid to preserve the moral integrity of the donor. Treating the donor’s dilemma as a structural problem depersonalises it, and this helps to ensure that the donor does not conflate the dilemma with the contingent leadership of the recipient state.

Correctly identifying contextual constraints and the type of dilemma also puts more choices and tools at the donor’s disposal. This in turn would make it possible for donors to build a coherent case for different responses to normatively distinct situations, and so strengthen public support for development aid.

Many donors and development organisations work in complex political realities and we need to move past a naïve belief that donors should never provide aid to non-democratic governments. Equally, it is important that we avoid the other extreme where we ignore signs of increasing repression and rights violations.

We argue that at the heart of thinking and working politically lies the ability to respond to changing circumstances and to be aware of warning signs. Further, the framework illustrates that a political approach to aid, one which is sensitive to political contexts and structural constraints, need not be normatively silent.

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